For the past 10 years, my cred as both a film nerd and a nerd-nerd has been threatened by a shameful omission: I never finished Harry Potter, either the books or the movies. I did see Sorcerer’s Stone on opening weekend in 2001, after devouring the first four Potter books in an astonishing feat of senior-thesis avoidance. Then I missed the next movie, failed to pre-order the next book, and never returned to Hogwarts again. I always assumed I’d get around to it eventually. And so, in honor of the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter’s U.S. publication, I decided to take the plunge. Here’s my diary of watching all eight films — nearly 20 hours of golden snitches, Dementors, and Dumbledore’s beard ponytails — over the course of five days. Hop on my Nimbus 2000 and come along for the ride.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Hour 1)
This is the one I actually saw in theaters, on opening weekend; my strongest memory is being stunned by how faithful it was to the book. Watching it again all these years later, I expected to be transported into a state of childlike wonder. Instead, I felt immediately melancholy about the passage of time. Original viewers of this film didn’t know that the first Dumbledore, Richard Harris, would soon die of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The three lead actors — small, saucer-eyed Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe, and Rupert Grint — didn’t yet know how much their lives would be warped by living in a Diagon Alley-brand fishbowl. The sweet innocence of those performances, in retrospect, seems fragile and fleeting.
As a film, Sorcerer’s Stone is energized at every turn by Rowling’s inventive set pieces: the moving staircases, the room of flying keys, John Cleese’s “nearly headless” ghost. But its center is strangely hollow. Harry himself is something of a blank slate. We don’t really know what he wants, besides a family that doesn’t treat him like crap. He takes an alarming number of new experiences in stride, and even the truth of his parents’ deaths doesn’t send him spiraling. A little shock or horror would be natural. Instead, he’s just perpetually amused, as if observing the action from a distance. This flaw is certainly not little Danny Radcliffe’s fault. I could blame it on Chris Columbus, but more likely it’s a function of the episodic plot, which works fine on the page but doesn’t give the characters much momentum for the film’s nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime. We don’t even learn about the existence of the titular sorcerer’s stone until we’re two-thirds of the way in. It’s like I’ve joined these characters on the moving staircases, meandering off into whatever Hogwarts hall they land upon.
What surprised me most on my second viewing of Sorcerer’s Stone was how much I loved Emma Watson’s Hermione. The first time around, I remember thinking that her show-offish, know-it-all nature was borderline unbearable. Now I love how unapologetic she is about her intelligence, how confidently she wields it in a room full of boys. (Seriously, where are the Hogwarts girls? Hermione needs some female friends!) Maybe as a girl who grew up downplaying her intelligence, Hermione made me uncomfortable in some primal, fourth-grade part of my subconscious. If that’s true, it only makes me more grateful that my daughter will grow up in a post-Hermione world.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Hour 2.5)
So since starting Sorcerer’s Stone, I’ve taken about a dozen online quizzes to determine what house I belong to, and exactly half of them say Ravenclaw and half say Hufflepuff. So if you visit Hogwarts, I will be the one living in a tent marked “Huffleclaw.”
Chamber of Secrets reveals that there are practical, day-to-day evils in the wizarding world, not just your standard scary monsters. The world with the magical candy and flying broomsticks also has elf slavery, a racial purity myth, and a struggling middle class (although the Weasleys’ magic-cluttered house is fabulous), not to mention con-artist celebrities and outcast ghosts living in toilets. It’s fascinating to see the seams in what appeared at first to be a utopia. Do they also have petty evils, like the wizard equivalent of Keurig cups or automated phone menus?
In fact, I’m wondering if the house system might be a little bit evil. Maybe I’d understand this if I was wealthy and/or British, but what’s the value of having everyone in the school compete against each other every second of the day? The points system seems so arbitrary, since professors can give and take at will (see: Dumbledore dumping a bunch of points on Gryffindor at the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, which honestly seemed like both Rowling and Dumbledore were cheating). Furthermore, the professors themselves have house loyalties, so what’s to stop Snape from favoring Slytherin or Pomona Sprout from giving all her points to Hufflepuff? Do they make sure that the hiring process includes an equal number of faculty from every house? Finally, if Dumbledore is the head of the school and Slytherin was founded on the values of racism, exploitation, and corruption, then why hasn’t House Slytherin undergone some serious reform, or been eliminated altogether? I’ve deduced from all those “What house are you?” quizzes that Slytherins have good qualities too, but you wouldn’t know it from this movie. Even when Harry discovers his Slyther-ish abilities, he wants to run in the other direction.
Overall, Harry continues to appear weirdly unfazed by the strange turn his life has taken. Masochistic elf shows up in his bedroom and reveals that wizard slavery exists? Sure, whatever, just don’t make any noise. Giant talking spider? Not the end of the world! Ron’s perennial state of freaked-out-ness and Hermione’s intellectualizing both make much more sense to me. Then again, maybe that’s why Harry is the hero. And one thing I do love about Radcliffe’s performance is that he never seems arrogant — just emotionally prepared to handle pretty much anything. I do like it when his vulnerabilities show, like when he tries to kill the basilisk with a sword by waving it around like a glow stick at a rave.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Hour 5)
Wow, what a difference a great director can make! Within 10 minutes, I am 200 percent more invested in Prisoner of Azkaban than in the two previous movies combined. Alfonso Cuarón of Gravity fame, who tragically only directed this one Potterverse film, brings an edge of farce and a sense of menace that I didn’t know was missing from Harry’s story. The magical trolley hurtling through London immediately throws me off-balance, playing like a scene from Trainspotting by way of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
The Hogwarts set, previously a somewhat generic castle with the occasional Raiders of the Lost Ark-style flourish, is now full of shadows and strange, magically sourced lights. Harry finally shows real emotion. A Malfoy finally gets punched in the face (by Hermione, no less!). Even the inevitable third-movie exposition is handled beautifully by Cuarón, like the scene where the Weasley twins explain the Marauder’s Map in rapid-fire sentence swaps, or the one in which Harry learns the story of Sirius Black from beneath his invisibility cloak. And then there are the Dementors, a genuinely scary and fairly original sort of villain, who are presumably the reason that this movie was not beside the first two in the kids’ section of my local library.
There’s a whole lot that I liked about Prisoner of Azkaban: the wonderfully art-directed scenes in which the portraits go crazy, the tricky climax shot from two different perspectives, Alan Rickman’s delivery of the words “page 394.” Still, I feel no sense of urgency in Harry’s story, no great internal struggle, no ongoing battle or quest. Of course, I’m curious what happened to his parents, and what Voldemort wants with him. But it seems like Harry just wants to be left alone with his two friends and his Firebolt. Why drag him back into five more films’ worth of drama?
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Hour 7.5)
I came into this one a skeptic: The Mandatory Wizard Olympics That No One Has Mentioned Until Now don’t exactly jump-start the plot. I scribbled notes like “40 minutes in and the only thing that’s happened is that Harry’s name is in a cup.” Suddenly all the young wizards have hormones, and the traditional events of the Triwizard Tournament include a dance, so there’s a lot of middle-school-gym-level romantic drama. Also, Harry Potter is sexually assaulted by a ghost and it’s played for laughs, which is a thing that happens in Ghostbusters, but I never expected to see it here. The bathtub scene is deeply, deeply uncomfortable, especially considering that Harry is 14 and Moaning Myrtle has been around for at least 50 years. The fact that Radcliffe was even asked to shoot that scene is pretty messed up, and I hope he’s received profuse apologies from J.K. Rowling and director Mike Newell.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only problematic part of Goblet of Fire. Let’s talk about how this wizard tournament is supposed to be international, but almost everyone is white. This doesn’t even make sense: Wouldn’t the older, browner cultures have a lock on ancient magic? We do meet the Patel sisters, near-identical South Asian teenagers who wear saris, don’t have separate personalities, and are largely played for laughs. The exception is Cho Chang, the first Asian character of any significance to pop up at Hogwarts, who seems like an actual person. And speaking of teen-girl wizards, the whole Hermione school-dance arc is all kinds of messed up: First, there’s that eye-rolly “Omigod, the smart girl is pretty!” moment, then she’s slut-shamed by Ron for being someone else’s date because he was too scared to ask her. I like this not one bit.
So the good news is that the last hour of this (nearly three-hour) film is gangbusters. I’m a sucker for underwater sequences and the merfolk-themed challenge is a good one (though half-drowning everyone’s friends seems downright sadistic, like one of those haunted houses where you have to sign a waiver and somebody pretends to carve your dead mother’s name into their stomach). The momentum picks up as Voldemort finally appears, and explains that Lily Potter’s love for Harry, her willingness to sacrifice her life for his, is what kept him safe. I find this actually quite moving: Love is stronger than Voldemort! The film’s tragic death is also affecting, and Newell nails the gutting scene where the crowd starts celebrating Harry’s victory, not yet realizing that Future Edward Cullen (yes, I saw those movies) is now a corpse.
In terms of Harry’s journey, this film really pushes him, in a good way. We see his selflessness in risking his life for his friends, his bravery in taking on Voldemort, and his struggle to be a normal teenager when the universe keeps telling him he’s not. Sorry, kid — even at Hogwarts, nobody can stop you from growing up.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Hour 10)
Now this is what I’m talking about. Five movies in, the franchise finally slides into a larger story arc, and introduces the most evil villain of all: standardized testing. To my surprise, it turns out old Dumbledore is considered a radical progressive by wizard society, allowing his students to experiment with spells and rewarding Harry’s transgressions with Gryffindor points. (I still find that second thing dodgy, but Dumbledore’s heart is in the right place.) Enter Dolores Umbridge, a power-hungry politician who decides to reform Hogwarts by removing everything creative and experimental. Instead she institutes a strict, testing-based curriculum, along with interrogations, random firings, and corporal punishment. I can’t think of a more perfect villain. Imelda Staunton is brilliant, prancing around the halls in her nightmare-Chanel ensembles. There’s a moment when she faces off with Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and Imelda says, “Minerva,” and Maggie says, “Dolores,” and it’s the film’s best special effect, because I felt the temperature in the room drop 10 degrees.
On top of that, Lord Voldemort is back, invading Harry’s psyche and readying a Death Eater army to go after him. With Voldemort, Umbridge, and puberty, Harry is finally pushed to his breaking point, and spearheads a secret student rebellion. Now Harry is a man with a mission — and a deep inner conflict, because the anger that makes him a charismatic revolutionary is the same anger that allows Voldemort to get a foothold in his brain. All this builds to a terrific climactic battle, and to my delight, a duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore. (I love a good wizard duel — see also The Raven, Willow, Fellowship of the Ring, and I’m gonna count Yoda versus Darth Sidious, just try and stop me.) In the film’s key moment, Voldemort seizes control of Harry’s brain and body, and Harry fights him out by harnessing the love he feels for his friends. I got all kinds of emotional, even though Voldemort looked like he was broadcasting from inside an evil Rick Astley video.
In the final moments, we find out about the prophecy: either Harry is going to kill Voldemort or vice versa, but there’s not room in this town for the both of them. For the first time, I end a Harry Potter film legit wondering what happens next.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Hour 12.5)
My head is swimming in Harry Potter. I have watched nothing else for four days straight. I hear faint strains of John Williams music wherever I go. I am craving butterbeer, a beverage that does not exist. I see owls flying overhead and then blink and realize they’re airplanes. But hey, at least now I know what a Horcrux is.
The Half-Blood Prince feels smaller and more relationship-focused than the films before it. At times it’s downright Shakespearean, between the love potions and dramatic deaths and star-crossed wizards and father-son betrayals. I’m into it. At this point I have literally watched Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow up, I’ve started modest college savings funds for them, and I want to see them through to the end.
Still, the thing I most want to know is whether Snape is actually evil or has a larger agenda in joining the Death Eaters. Furthermore, I may never recover from Half-Blood Prince killing off one of my favorite characters — by which I mean, of course, the Weasleys’ house.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (Hour 15)
They had me in the palm of their hand and they lost me! Deathly Hallows: Part 1 makes me feel for the first time that I’m missing key things by not having finished the books. Harry’s world has changed dramatically since the last film and every time I think I’ve caught up, they introduce a new character, piece of lore, or magic spell, and I’m thrown back out of the loop. I realize that everything in this one is setup for the big finish, but the unrelenting exposition makes it feel like the pilot of a TV prestige show, not a major motion-picture event. So much is going on and yet so little happens.
Things I did like about Harry Potter’s Apocalyptic Road Trip Special: the gorgeously designed “The Tale of the Three Brothers” sequence. The heartbreaking courage of Hermione erasing herself from her parents’ memories. Dolores Umbridge’s jacket with the knitted cat. The scene where Harry and Hermione dance like it’s the last night of the world. Ralph Fiennes being genuinely terrifying in a role that could easily have been ridiculous. Dirigible plums.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (Hour 17.5)
OK, fine, all of you were right, Harry Potter is amazing. I’m reeling from how good this movie is when Part 1 was so underwhelming. This really was everything I could possibly ask from a grand finale: Tragedy, romance, humor, redemption, unexpected twists, thrilling confrontations, and a showdown between Harry and Voldemort that’s equally about Harry’s battle with himself. Not to mention, a very satisfying answer to my Snape questions. (I believed in you all along, Severus!)
Honestly, when I started watching these films, I never thought I’d be jotting down notes like, “Whoa, so many corpses.” But despite the goriness and the alarming death count, this last installment somehow works perfectly, a final leap into adulthood for a franchise that started out so innocently. And the triumph feels hard-won. By the end of this one, my notes basically look like this: “NEVILLE!! YESSS MINERVA. GO MRS. WEASLEY!” I even like the part where they put their kids on the train at the end, in a sense starting the whole story over. If you’d told me a week ago that this is how the whole thing ends, I would have rolled my eyes so hard. Now? I just want to hop on the Hogwarts Express and go right back.
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